Have you ever been in a restaurant when the people next to you started arguing? Talk about awkward tension. Putting a fight or argument into your story is a great way to add tension, but if you rely solely on personal confrontation, you’ll end up with annoying characters who fight constantly.
So how do you add tension without the fights? Make everything go wrong. Here are some great ways to tense things up without ruining your characters.
- Move them. Take them out of a familiar setting, whether it’s just moving into a new house or a completely new city. Changing the location opens lots of problematic doors.
- Change their jobs. Even if your characters are completely confident in their work abilities, the new location, co-workers, and management/employees can add tension.
- Lose something precious. Grandma’s ring. Dad’s Joe Montana autographed football. It doesn’t matter how big or valuable, as long as there’s sentimental attachment.
- Give them something they don’t want. A new dog. Another pregnancy. An old house full of junk inherited from a deceased relative/hoarder. Anything that messes up the status quo will add tension.
- Destroy something. A deer/car accident that leaves your character without a way to get to work. A house fire that leaves him homeless. A drowned cell phone that causes your character to miss an important phone call. Tension, tension, tension.
- Give them friends and co-workers. Unless your story takes place on a deserted island, you can add minor characters who mess with your main characters. Don’t start arguments though, just put them in tense situations. An ex-boyfriend who interrupts a dinner date, or the highly motivated co-worker who tramples anyone on his way to the next promotion.
- Bring in the family. Whether it’s the nuclear family or a distant relative, the possibilities are endless for creating tension: the sexist uncle who insults everyone woman in the room; the annoying cousin who’s never worked a day in her life; the younger sibling who’s always trying to prove himself. (Try to avoid the nagging mother-in-law and the self-centered stepmom though – they’ve become cliché.)
Do you see the pattern here? Figure out what will push your characters’ buttons – then push them! By adding external tension, you give your characters issues to work through without forcing them to slip into nagging, argumentative behaviors.
How did you add tension to your story?